Rediscovering Beauty Amid Ruins of Once-Glorious Catskills

Memories Live On in Dying Iconic Resort Towns

Decades of Decay: Amid the rubble, vestiges remain of the coffee shop at Grossinger’s Catskills Resort and Hotel in Liberty, N.Y. Photographer Marisa Scheinfeld has been capturing the ruins of the Borscht Belt hotels for the past three years.
Marisa Scheinfeld
Decades of Decay: Amid the rubble, vestiges remain of the coffee shop at Grossinger’s Catskills Resort and Hotel in Liberty, N.Y. Photographer Marisa Scheinfeld has been capturing the ruins of the Borscht Belt hotels for the past three years.

By Abigail Jones

Published September 22, 2013, issue of September 27, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 5)

On June 9, 1914, a raging fire engulfed the Hotel Wawonda in Liberty, N.Y., — a regal exercise in Victorian architecture, with its pitched roofs, gabled dormers and sweeping 650 feet of porch — turning one of the Catskills’ then-greatest vacation destinations into ashes. The dramatic destruction of the Wawonda marked a critical point in the region’s history, foreshadowing the decline of what historians call the Silver Age and setting the stage for the rise of the Borscht Belt.

Built in 1891, the Wawonda was the premier Catskills hotel during an early period of rapid growth and prosperity in which the picturesque setting brought the railways, the railways attracted the hotels and the hotels lured the tourists. In the decades following the Civil War, railroads stormed through upstate New York, making it easier than ever before for New Yorkers to escape the city. Hundreds of hotels popped up around railway stations, including the Flagler House, in Fallsburg, and Ye Lancashire Inn, in Liberty. These establishments were mostly owned and visited by gentiles and open only in the summers. Up until 1899, when Jewish resort owner John Gerson started advertising a small boardinghouse in Rock Hill, there was no mention whatsoever of Jewish hotels or tourists.

The tourism industry that boomed during the 1890s and 1910s began to falter, due in part to the area’s growing reputation as a tuberculosis refuge. Still, the raw materials were in place for what would soon become the Jewish Catskills. The very same year as the Wawonda’s sudden, violent collapse, a family struggling to make it on the Lower East Side of Manhattan bought a modest farm in the heart of the Catskill Mountains and hosted nine guests for $81. Their name was Grossinger.

Everyone seems to have a Catskills story. Do you? Send us your memories and photos at catskills@forward.com.

When Selig Grossinger left Austria in 1897 for New York City, he joined throngs of poor, struggling Jewish immigrants chasing better lives at the start of the 20th century. Selig worked as a coat presser on the Lower East Side. Life was hard, yet a decidedly Jewish culture was thriving. Anyone arriving in New York for the first time encountered not a foreign land but a familiar landscape, reassuring in its sights, sounds and smells. That world expanded upstate in the 1920s.

Like many families seeking new business prospects and an affordable refuge from the city’s harsh work environments and anti-Semitic climate, the Grossingers bought a small farmhouse called the Longbrook in Ferndale, in the heart of the Catskills, and started hosting visitors. Grossinger’s wife, Malke Grossinger, ran the kitchen, serving up delicious kosher meals, and his daughter, Jennie Grossinger, thrived as the hostess. By 1919, they had sold the Longbrook and bought a sizeable portion of the nearby Nichols Estate.

Jennie Grossinger’s business savvy and signature warmth made her the right hotelier at exactly the right moment. Under her watchful eye, Grossinger’s expanded dramatically. Tennis courts, a riding path, a children’s camp and daily activities were added in the 1920s.

During the 1920s and ’30s, small and medium-sized hotels prospered alongside goliaths like Grossinger’s and the Flagler. With a vibrant Jewish culture, a relaxed atmosphere and a celebrity clientele, the region offered a place for upwardly mobile American Jewish immigrants to be just that: American and Jewish.

“This was their mecca, their paradise,” Conway said.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.